One of the least appreciated cameras of A.D. 2000+

Near the end of 2005 Sony announced and camera that spoke to me in a way most digital cameras had not.  It was called the Sony R-1 and it was the ultimate bridge camera (the step between "point and shoots" and DSLR's).  Around the same time I needed to buy a couple of Nikon D2x's so I didn't pry open the wallet and buy the R-1's when they first appeared.

By the time they circled back to my "radar" they were not selling well and were being discontinued so I bought two of them for around $500 each.  If you don't know about the Sony R1 let me fill you in.  Sony started with a variant of the same chip used in the Nikon D2x.  Not a stellar high ISO performer but a critically reviewed champ of the lower ISO's in terms of both sharpness and tonal nuance. So, if you are a low ISO shooter it's your kind of camera.  The chip was 10.2 megapixels and was sized just slightly smaller than a standard APS-C format chip.

The Sony R1, in some ways is just a big point and shoot in that it's lens is fixed on the camera and it has a feature that I've come to understand the value of-----an EVF.  Counterintuitive? Read on.  The Sony has a swiveling monitor that attaches to the top of the camera and can be used in many positions, including the "waist level" position.  But when shooting in bright sun or under stage lights, as in the photo above from the dress rehearsal of the play, "Love Janis" the EVF (electronic viewfinder) that mimics the traditional SLR viewfinder only with a little screen instead of an optical pipeline this camera really comes into its own.

Here's why, the finder image is a preview of what the final image will look like because it is being imaged through the lens and through the taking electronics.  For all intents and purposes it will look exactly the way you see it before you push the shutter button as after!  You could say that you are "pre-chimping" instead of post chimping which takes out one whole production step.

Now you bring the camera to your eye, check focus, see a perfect preview and then capture it. On the SLR you see an image, not stopped down, not in the final color, not with the final noise aspect, then you click the shutter, evaluate what you got, change some parameters and then try again until you either get what you wanted or you give up.  Hardly an optimal way of working.

The R1 is not as fast to shoot frame to frame as the traditional SLR's but it has a fast three shot burst rate that really works.  I use the side mounted focusing button rather than coupling focusing to the shutter button.  It works like this:  Bring the camera up to your eye, push the button on the left side of the camera and hold it there until you achieve focus lock.  Release the button and the focus stays right there until you change it.  If your subject isn't moving around and you're not moving you'll never have the kind of "shoot and hunt" experience that you get with even the latest high end cameras when the place you want to focus on falls between AF sensors.  I shot around 1200 shots at the dress rehearsal and post rehearsal set up shots and the marketing director who had to wade through and edit the take told me I missed about ten shots to focus or exposure errors.

So many people dismissed this camera because they didn't take the time to master the focus. Metering is just as good as a D300 or a D700.  The one glaring fault of this camera is the speed at which it processes raw files.  If you are a still life photographer it might just be bearable to shoot in raw but if you are a people shooter then Jpeg will be a standard.  Which is find because of the reasons I gave in one of the paragraphs above:  There really isn't any guess work or need for post processing if you can get accurate previews before you even punch the button.  The camera is a bit harder to master in some senses than rival DLSR's but there is a secret weapon that makes this camera stellar:

Planted right on the front is a big wonkin Carl Zeiss 24mm to 120mm zoom lens that reviewers from Michael Reichmann at Luminous Landscape and the folks at DPreview have described as fantastic and well worth the price of the entire camera.  How can this lens be so much better than the same kind of optics from Nikon and Canon?  Well, I'll admit that I don't understand the details of lens design but apparently lenses that don't have to be designed to ride far forward of an SLR's flipping mirror can be designed to a much higher level of correction.  And the results can and have been easily measured.  The lens is better.  It is the "L Glass Plus" of optics.

I've photographed architecture with these cameras and have had to use minimal correction even at f4 at 24mms.  At middle focal lengths it's on par with my recent model 5omm Leica Summicron.  It just plain works.  Add to this the things Sony excels at, like great batteries and battery life indicators and you've got a remarkable camera.  I've got two and I use them a lot. When the last one dies I'll be very sad.  True, something fun will take it's place but I'll be sad because if people had taken the time to use correctly the market would be full of them and good used copies would be rampant.

As with most great cameras discovered too late the R1's are on their way to cult status and the prices are rising every day.  If you want to play with an interactive EVF for not a lot of money you might want to look into the Canon SX10.  Same EVF set up along with the addition of Image Stabilization.

Reminds me of the Kodak SLRn.  That camera was capable of superb studio portrait files.  Too bad most people judged it on its high speed surveillance skills.  If they'd taken the time to get to know the strengths of that camera then Nikon enthusiasts would have been shooting full frame images years earlier.  I guess ease of use trumps quality.......


A muse is a wonderful thing. Every artist should have one.

I was sitting in a coffee shop between jobs when Lou walked in the door with a stack of books. The face of a Leonardo Da Vinci Angel and a feminine allure that was so powerful even a blind man over to one side of the shop stared when she walked in.

I was older than her by 12 years or so but I knew I had to photograph Lou or I would regret it.

I walked over, told her what I wanted and left her a card. On the back I'd put the number of a female art director at a major magazine who would vouch for my honor and good character. Then I stepped away and went on with my life.

Several days later Lou called and we set up the first of many sessions to photograph together. I believe that Lou is one of the most beautiful women I have ever met. She was totally at ease in front of the camera and brought a light hearted playfulness to every session we did. I was able to cast her in a big video project and she moved equally well in front of my older movie camera.

I've noticed that the current rage is to go through as many models as an up and coming photographer can book from Model Mayhem. But lost in this serial pursuit of glamour and trendy fashion is the need to develop more complex and balanced relationships if you want the depth of expression to satisfy. I worked with Lou frequently over a two year period and our professional interactions got better and better. I know I sound like a broken record but the success of a great portrait depends mostly on the collaborative rapport between the sitter and the photographer and there is no short cut for developing a real rapport.

As Avedon once said, "Scratch below the surface and if you are lucky you'll find more surface." I'm not sure what he meant but I translate it to mean that anything meaningful, hell, anything even interesting, requires a lot of digging and time.

What I've learned over the years is that finding a muse can add joy and energy to all your work. Your muse becomes the person who helps you test and grow your techniques and your skills. But finding a muse is like one of those Zen koans that gets the point across: The harder you look the less likely you'll find what you are a looking for.

I've had three people in my professional life who pushed my photography forward by being incredible subjects. They flow into and out of your life without notice but it is critical that you are able to perceive when a gift is being given you by the universe and you must have the courage to reach out and make contact.

After a time the magic may fade, the interest may dwindle or life may intrude and then you'll find you might have a period of time when no one seems as interesting. That's when you put your head down and work with what you learned. And the idea that someone else will come along to light the fuse of creativity is what keeps one engaged and moving forward.

At least that's how it has always worked for me.

Side note: Eye, Hand and Brain all work together. You find the right tool. You have the right mindset and you have to practice the intermix of the three spheres. Today is Sunday. Only crazy people go out into a heat wave (60th day in a row over 100F) and stumble around in the afternoon in downtown looking for images. And photographers. To stay fresh you have to practice. Practice looking, composing and taking. The more you practice the more automatic the process becomes. It would be nice to be so well practiced that the taking of an image becomes all one motion without the interruption of rational thought. Nice target to aim for.

Sometimes a photo is just a photo.

I'm temporarily leaving the contentious issues surrounding film use and digital dogma to just revel in the fun of shooting with just about any kind of camera. The image to the right was taken a few years ago on an Annual Report shoot for Southwest Water Company. It was done with a Fuji S2 camera and a Nikon 12-24mm zoom lens.

The assignment was pure fun. Essentially, the brief that the art director and I followed called for finding fun and artful images at waste water treatment plants across the southeastern U.S. Sure, we did the obligatory "project manager in a hard hat" and the "three engineers looking at plans" images. We even did the CEO portrait in front of a very high tech water treatment system. But the images I really loved were the ones of "Moonrises over the #1 tank" and nobly rusted apparatus kissed by the last rays of a crimson setting soon.

We got to a plant in Biloxi around 3pm and nothing seemed to click but then the sun started to set and the magic of mixed light and weird color balance ruled. We were like little kids who just discovered a box full of fireworks. The five or six days on the road were hot and long and tiring. We were still hauling around studio strobes in those days, just in case. That meant a lot more to carry.

But in recent memory it is the most satisfying project I can think of just because it was an journey of encouraged visual discovery. Kicking over rocks to find something wonderful underneath. Who would have thought that a trip to the waste water treatment plant would trump Maui or Monte Carlo? But here's the deal: a trip like this is all about looking and problem solving and inventing and it's more engaging than responding to some boring general concensus of naturally occurring beauty that's been postcarded to death. It's the real thing. The hidden infrastructure that makes our lives work. As photographers we're privileged in that we get to see the cogs and gears under the hood (bonnet) and better understand the interconnected nature of human existence.

Marketing note: My first book, Minimalist Lighting: Professional Techniques for Location Photography, is now available as a Kindle book for those of you with Kindles or with Kindle software loaded on your Apple iPod Touches and iPhones. Wow. I feel so 21st century......

What I want out of my assistant(s)!!!

What I want from my assistants and how to make it worthwhile for everyone.

By Kirk Tuck

This is an excerpt from my third book (due out in Sept. 2009) called The Handbook of Commercial Photography.  I'm posting it because I was asked by an assistant what I expected from them on a shoot and I thought it would be easier to give them a copy of this section.  If you think it's helpful you are welcome to use it personally.  I think it's great to let your assistants know what you expect and how to work.  I know that it made my shoot a pleasure today (THANK YOU, THAO!).

Optimum Photographic Education.  Assisting.

When it comes right down to it the best way to learn the profession is to assist or apprentice to a very good, very successful working photographer.  If you are lucky you’ll learn through osmosis how to engineer the workflow of a good shoot,  how to do or outsource the post production, the care and feeding of clients,  how and what to bill and how do the vital and continuous job of marketing.

Don’t get me wrong.  You should still read everything you can get your hands on,  and every free moment should be spent working on technique and style, but there are some intangible things that you’ll only learn from “on the job” training that will be invaluable in your career.

In some European countries there are still apprenticeships wherein a person wishing to learn a trade, craft or profession actually pays to learn from a master in the field.  Those days are long gone in the United States.  The closest you’ll get to the valuable assistant relationship is to sign on as an assistant to a working photographer.

Assisting at the most basic level.   

Here’s the truth about assisting working commercial photographers in the digital age:  You are being hired to do the repetitive “grunt” work of the business.  You aren’t being hired because you have a nice portfolio.  You aren’t being hired because the photographer feels a need to mentor new photographers.  You aren’t being hired to learn from the photographer (but if you pay attention you can’t help but learn a lot.….).  You are being hired to make the job of photography easier and more efficient for the photographer!

The photographer rarely needs help deciding which lens to use or how to compose or expose a shot.  You won’t be collaborating in an “executive” sense.  What you will be doing a lot of is packing camera and lighting gear, light stands and cables into cases.  You will be tasked with getting those cases from the studio to the car.  From the car to the shooting location.  Once you reach a location your task will be to unpack and set up the various pieces of equipment that the photographer has indicated he would like to use.

Once the lights are set up according to the photographer’s instructions and all of the props have been wrangled into place a good assistant will step back and wait for further instructions.  After the shoot is completed the assistant will carefully pack all of the equipment back into the cases in the precise order prescribed by the photographer and will reverse the order of the paragraph above until all the gear is safely back in the studio and packed away.

It’s important to understand that the photographer is intent on the project at hand and will be planning, in his head, every step of the project before he walks in to begin the project.  Until the shoot is over there is no “good” time to ask curiosity questions about photography.  The appropriate time to ask questions is on the way back to the studio in the car.

Here is my list, garnered over twenty years, of the “do’s and don’t’s” of basic assisting for a commercial photographer:

1.  You are on the job to make life easier on the photographer.  Your mindset should be that of willing assistant.  If that means running out for coffee, cleaning mud off extension cables, cleaning the windows on a location or holding up a reflector you should do it without hesitation or argument.  Your need to learn always takes a back seat to your photographer’s needs.

2. Every photographer has their own way of packing gear to go on location or for storage in the studio.  Ask the photographer about their preferences and be sure that everything goes back in its place when packing.

3. There is always a dress code.  If you are shooting under the hot Texas sun on one of those 90% humidity days it will certainly be shorts and tee shirts.  If you are shooting on a client location your clothes need to echo those of the workers at the location  (In a corporate location an assistant might be in pressed Khakis and a Polo Shirt with a collar,  at a wedding, the same assistant would probably be dressed in black dress pants, a white button down shirt and a nice pair of lace up shoes.  If you are shooting hip hop artists you might be dressed in baggy jeans and track shoes).  The point is not to dress down, not to dress like a war correspondent if you’ll be working at a medical practice and never to embarrass your photographer.

4.  Be ready to “fall on a grenade” from time to time.  If there is a big mess up and you know it’s not your fault it might be politically savvy to take the blame if doing so makes your photographer look good.  Example:  Your photographer asks you to plug a bunch of lights into one circuit while you are setting up for an executive shoot in a factory.  Just as the marketing director shows up with the impatient executive in tow the circuit breaker trips for the outlet you’ve plugged the lights into.  The tension rises and the marketing director looks annoyed.  You might provide an out for the photographer by turning to him and saying, “Sorry about that.  I’ll re-rout some of the lights and get those breakers back on for you.”  Now he doesn’t look like a numbskull and if he’s a good person he’ll remember and reward your kindness.

5.  Never take your eyes off the gear while you are on an uncontrolled location.  When you are outside the studio working the photographer can’t keep his eye on the camera finder and his cases of gear at the same time.  It’s your job to make sure that no acquisitive bystanders make off with souvenirs of his expensive gear.  Both eyes on the gear, not on the attractive model.  If there’s no hired security you are security.

6.  In the studio:  Keep your eyes on the lights.  If your photographer’s set up includes complex lighting set ups including hair lights, background lights and accent lights you’ll need to check constantly to make sure that all of the lights are firing as they should.  Calmly tell the photographer if you detect a problem.

7.  Assisting is a very physical job.  You’ll be asked to corral heavy cases of gear up and down stairs, in an out of cars or trucks and onto carts.  You might also be tasked with standing near the photographer with a full camera bag over your shoulder, ready to hand him the next lens or other accessory as needed.  Make sure you are in good shape to handle this kind of activity.  Get lots of aerobic exercise.

8.  Don’t look at the models or portrait subjects while they’re being photographed.  Here’s the reason:  Most models and especially inexperienced subjects are always looking for direction and reassurance.  All of the direction should come from one source, the person responsible for realizing the vision of the photo shoot.  That person is the photographer.  If you make eye contact with the sitter then their attention is split between you and the photographer causing them to shift attention and eye contact from the camera/photographer to you and then back again.  It disrupts the rapport the photographer is working hard to build.  When the real shooting begins it’s best to step behind a scrim and keep your eyes on the things the photographer can’t, such as whether all the light heads are firing or not.  Whether the set is on fire and a host of other scenarios.

9.  Don’t volunteer advice or opinions unless requested.  All humans are remarkably suggestible.  I remember to this day a photo shoot I did in Houston, Texas over twelve years ago.  My favorite assistant was unavailable so I called up a rather well known assist who was highly recommended by several national level photographers.  This assistant had worked all over the world for about ten years and had assisted several real photographic legends.  I was setting up an environmental portrait in a board room and I asked him to set up light for me.  I  left the room to go and scout a second location.  When I returned he had set up the lights in slightly different locations and had used different light modifiers than I would have used.  He also had “just a few” suggestions to “make the shot better”.

I started a thought process that went something like this:  “Well, I’ve always lit these kinds of shots with a bigger softbox and I’ve always placed my main light a lot further to one side, but I know that ”Bob” has worked for “so and so” from New York and “so and so” from London so maybe he’s reflecting the lighting he’s learned from those masters.  Maybe I’m doing this all wrong.…….”  Needless to say, my confidence was shot and I started second guessing myself at every turn.  By the time we got back to Austin I was just hoping something would turn out on the film that my client would be able to use.  Needless to say, even though he was a hard worker and knew the nuts and bolts of photography at least as well as I did I was never keen to use him again.  I want people around me in the service of my vision, not for the extension of another photographer’s vision.  If your photographer is in charge he will tell you exactly what he wants.

10.  Never talk about the client’s business.  Nothing will kill your relationship (and future referrals) with your photographer quicker than divulging the information you’ve learned about your photographer’s business to his clients or competitors.  You may be standing around a factory waiting for a shot of an assembly line worker to happen when someone asks you a question about the photographer’s fee.  You blurt out, “He’s really good!  He’s charging $2,500 a day!!!  That person may go back and tell everyone he works with on the assembly line, including the employee that your photographer just spent ten minutes convincing to be in the shot,  and to sign a model release in exchange for a ”token” $10 modeling fee.  All of a sudden he might not feel so well disposed about modeling for someone who charges more in a day than he might take home in a month.  

If you want to learn all about your photographer’s best practices, as well as the little nuts and bolts that hold the business together, he’ll need to trust you to safeguard his confidences.  It’s in your best interest to have a mutually trustworthy relationship.  

11.  Never show up late.  Never.  Call if it is unavoidable.   Better yet show up early.

12.  Get a good night’s sleep.  The photographer is paying you for a certain level of performance.  It’s not fair to them if you’ve been out drinking and dancing all night long and you stumble in for an early morning call exhausted and hung over.….

(photo: coffee cup.tif) (caption):  Photographers want to work with someone who’s easy to get along with.  If you bitch about going out to get coffee you’ll miss the whole point of assisting.

Getting the most out of the relationship: If your long term goal is to become a successful photographer and you’ve been lucky enough to start working with a good, established shooter you’ll want to make the most out of your experiences with him or her.  Acknowledging that half the job description is taking care of the equipment you’ll need to make sure that you know how (and when) to operate all of the gear your photographer uses.  Ask your photographer to show you how he packs his cameras, how he packs his lighting equipment and how everything works.  If the equipment is new to you it might be good to make a list of the gear you’ll be shepherding and then go online and study the owner’s manuals.

I guarantee that your photographer would much rather take an hour or so to run you through the process than take a chance that you’ll inadvertently destroy an expensive piece of gear in the middle of an important assignment.


Hot Light Shoot at Zach Scott Theater. With Espy.

So.  I've been talking about hot lights lately and I decided to grab my Canon G9 and take it with me to do a time lapse video showing a headshot session I did with an actor named Espy for the 2009-2010 season brochure.  I didn't put any sound in.  It lasts about a minute and covers about 18 minutes of shooting.  

The scrim to the left of the frame is a white 72 by 72 inch two stop silk.  The light on the extreme left is a Profoto Protungsten fixture with a 1,000 watt lamp.  I try to keep Espy angled into the lamp but I also have a convenient white fill to the right.  It's a white/black reversible panel on a Chimera frame.  The background is a custom gray canvas 9 feet wide.  It's lit with a Desisti 300 watt spotlight.  The spot of light is there for separation.  And to create a halo around the actor.

The people who keep walking into the back of the scene near me and the camera are the marketing director, the theater's creative director, the make up person and the art director.  We shot three people yesterday, three today and we'll shoot another 12 over the weekend.

I'm using hot lights so I can shoot as fast as I want to without worry about recycle time.  We're also using the same set to do videos for web promotion after I shoot each person.  Tomorrow I'll post a final shot from this shoot.  One of our goals was to get very shallow depth of field.  I think, with a 105mm f2 were right there.

Hope this works and I hope it's fun!  Here's a photo of Espy as an example from our shoot!


Playing With Hot Lights. Next Year's Hip Trend.

Love flashes.  They're really cool.  But the hot light for me right now is the hot light.  I love to shoot portraits.  That's what I do.  But I hate being dependent on flash for my lighting.  You don't really see what you get when you are looking through the camera and you have to wait around for the damn things to recycle. Then there is the whole depth of field thing you have to deal with.  Always looks good when you look through lens.  And who ever uses that "depth of field" button?  The heck with all that.  I've started shooting my portraits with several tungsten halogen lights and I'm really happy.  For a number of reasons.

1.  In a studio or other controlled environment I see exactly what I get.  Really.

2.  With a D700 I can shoot at 800 ISO and get exposures like 1/400th at f4.  That means I can shoot at 8 frames a second if I want to/ need to. Wow.  8 frames a second for as many shots as I want without ever worrying about recycle time.

3.  With a 1,000 watt light shining though one layer of scrim material you have all the light your camera ever wanted for lightning fast focus.  On the money focus with no hesitation.

4.  Imagine being able to shift shutter speeds until you find just the aperture you always dreamed of for your shoot.  With perfect focus every time.

5.  Keep your pizza next to the 1K and it will stay warm.  

So, I'm doing the season brochure for my favorite theater (Zachary Scott Theater) and we're doing portraits of actors.  Here's the lighting set up:

One Profoto ProTungsten fixture with a 1,000 watt FEL lamp.  (The discontinued Profoto tungsten light takes all the regular modifiers and is fan cooled.)  One Magnum reflector set to full flood.  All this is aimed through a six foot by six foot white two stop silk.  The silk is set about three feet from the actor.  Yummy directional softlight.  Add a little bit of fill from a Chimera 4x4 foot reflector panel and you've got the main light locked.

The gray canvas background is thirty feet back from the subject and is lit by a Desisti 300 watt spotlight with the barndoors clamped down a bit.  That's the whole ball of wax.  One person set up in 30 minutes or less.

Radical thought:  I used my D700 in the high quality Jpeg setting because I was so certain that what I saw on the meter, in the finder and on the screen was just right.  I preset the color balance at 3150K and looking on my calibrated monitor back at the studio I was right on the money.  Why jpeg?  Because the new Nikon bodies automatically fine tune every lens you put on the front, eliminating CA, vignetting and sharpness issues.  With the new color settings everything is just about perfect right out of camera.  Why correct raw files if you've already landed not only in the ballpark but right across the plate?

I shot fifteen hundred files tonight and we've got more to shoot tomorrow.  I threw away five that didn't work out.  I'll let the client make the more subtle edits....

If you haven't shot portraits with a set of tungsten lights you are certainly missing out on a cheap thrill.  I'm not sure I ever want to go back to strobe.  You might not either.

Marketing note:  If everyone else is chasing the same look doesn't it make sense to find your own niche?

To sleep.  Perchance to dream.  Of tungsten lights.....


Life is good. Photography is fun again.

I was looking ahead at the month of May dreading another slow month with clients cancelling projects or postponing them till next month when I decided to do something about it.  I declared May the "month of personal art" and sent an invite to all the people on my Facebook account asking them to come to the studio and have their portrait made.  

The project has been fun.  I'm meeting new people by referrals and I'm sitting down and talking to old friends who are stopping by to participate.  Belinda is happy to have a photo of Ben and our dog, Tulip.

I photographed a father and son earlier today and it may be the most beautiful shot I've ever taken of a small kiddo.  I can hardly wait for the dad (also a photographer) to see the gallery.  And I'm excited that I'm so excited about taking photos again.

I've been struggling to get my fourth book done and it started to seem like one of those projects that would just go on forever.  Now I feel a bit of joy about the project and it looks so much better to me.

I had so much fun at my son's swim meet on friday and I'll post some of those shots over on smugmug in the next few days.  I am the team's photographer and that gives me a good excuse to roam around with a neckful of my favorite cameras and blaze away.  The funnest pix are from the little "six and unders".  My son is an assistant coach this year and helps teach them to race. Can't imagine a funner thing for a dad to photograph!!!!

Since it's all for fun I feel free to bring along my favorite old art cameras.  On friday I shot with the Kodak DCS 760 and an Olympus e-1 with a bit of Canon G10 thrown in for good measure. The Olympus is twice as good as I remember it.  I'm thinking I'll get a longer zoom and make it the primary camera for the swim season.  The raw files are delicious and most parents just want digital files.  Nobody seems to want prints anymore which is great with me.

The G10 with face detection rocks for wide angle, quick group shots.  Everyone should have one of these cameras.  I really want to write a book about the new small camera phenomenon. Something like, "Getting Professional Results with Your Point and Shoot Camera!"  I think that's where a lot of photography is going.  And for good reason.

Speaking of books, David Hobby over at Strobist did his magic.  He reviewed my second book, Studio Techniques, and drove sales off the charts over at Amazon.com.  Last week the book was the #1 book in the photographic lighting category.  Yahoo!  That's two in a row.

I'm not sure that everyone gets that the second book is not meant to be a product extension of the small flash trend.  It's very much about traditional lighting techniques and studio stuff. Check out the reviews.

Finally, I am jazzed about starting a new project for Zachary Scott Theater.  We're spending four day this week doing their season brochure in one of my favorite styles.  Should be a blast. This will be the first project I've done that will have a videographer along shooting the shooting.  I'll try to figure out how to incorporate that into a blog next week.

The other image above is an example of how I light white backgrounds.  The whole explanation is in the studio book.

Keep shooting.  Keep loving it.  Life is good.


Time to talk a bit about marketing. Yikes

Is it possible to be in the market for too long?  I'm not talking about the stock market.  We all know the answer to that one.  I'm talking about the photography market.  If you are forty or fifty years old and you've been a photographer for the last ten or twenty years you know that we've been through some gut-wrenching changes.  We've all devised some self-serving and optimistic ways of looking at the decline of our traditional markets.  Some people walk around telling anyone who will listen, "Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger!"  But they never mention the scar tissue...  Others say, "This too shall pass!" Implying that the pain we feel now is but a temporary sting that will give way to a rosy and prosperous tomorrow.  "If you can make it through this economy you can  make it through anything."  As though it isn't possible for the economy to get any worse.

I've been thinking a lot about this lately and I've come to some conclusions about our position as photographers in this new world and how things might work out.  I'll say up front that if you are twenty five and surrounded by marvelous designer friends in some cool and unaffected part of the economy then just don't even bother to read the rest.  Everyone's kilometerage will vary.

Let's start by going around the room and admitting we've got a lot of baggage.  I know I do.  It's hard not to.  If you were working in the booming 1990's you no doubt remember when one of the hardest things to come by was a day off.  Day rates were climbing and corporate clients were throwing out stacks of money to advertise new web based companies and services. Traditional agencies with long pedigrees understood the rationale of usage fees and were willing to negotiate based on these historical payment agreements.

We used real cameras that spit out physical products.  We lit stuff and the lighting looked good. Clients didn't (and still don't ) understand lighting and they were willing to pay well for people who did.  Checks came from local offices and agency people understood mark-up.

We remember all this and some part of our brains feels like that's the marker for what should be a normal photo market.  But that's our baggage.  Can we still feel the buzz and get all enthusiastic after the whole model irrevocably changes?  Can we get pumped to do amazing stuff for less money?  For much less profit?

The market has flattened and once clients have tasted nearly free stock, used it and waited for an apocalypse (loss of market share, damage to the brand) that never came we are confronted with their version of a genie that's been released from the bottle, a ship that's sailed, a horse that's already out of the barn.

The selling mantra against dollar stock was fear.  "What if all the businesses in your sector used the same stock image in their campaigns?  Wouldn't you be devasted??  Wouldn't you perceive the tremendous value of a commissioned shoot? You'll never get fired using a proven supplier!!!"  That's pretty much a paraphrase of an essay up on the ASMP site.  But here's the disconnect:  Many of the art buyers, art directors, creative directors and marketing directors who learned their trade in decades past have been swept into other areas and out of negotiation with photographers by two big, catastrophic economic downturns in the first nine years of this century.

They've been replaced in legions by much younger and cheaper people.  These people were raised with dollar stock use or limited rights managed stock as the norm.  That's their baseline. There is no nostalgia driving these people back to the traditional assignment model.  There never will be. They add their own value to the stock stuff with tons of manipulation.  To be clear, clothing catalogs and product catalogs will continue being shot.  CEO's will continue being  photographed.  Stuff will still be assigned.  But it will be the exception rather than the rule.  Only a tiny percentage of images will be assigned and only for specific, proprietary products.

Here's another critical driver:  Advertising clients have scaled back in all print media and have poured more resources into online advertising.  By some counts webvertising is up 20% this year over last.  Consumer magazine ad pages are down nearly 35% over last year.  What happens when the recession finally ends and clients find that web and cable satisfied their needs almost completely?  I think they will channel more and more dollars into the web and TV and less and less into print.  

Let's face it.  The web isn't challenging medium.  My medium format cameras are definitely overkill for most web uses.  For that matter my Canon G10 is overkill for most web use.  The subordinated quality of web versus traditional media is just another barrier to entry knocked down.  The challenge on the web is pushing people to the site but that seems to be the provence of social marketing and viral marketing.  

I think that by the time this market recovers 80 to 90 % of the people we veteran photographers dealt with before the collapse will have moved on to other jobs and other industries.  More and more we'll be dealing with a brand new crowd.  None of them will know anything about your brand or your history in the market.  In fact, having a history in the market will mark you as a dinosaur.  Everything that we've learned over our careers, in terms of marketing, is going to be upside down.  New is the new good.  Fast is the new production value.  And coffee is the new martini.  The Canon G10 is the new Nikon D3x.  Just as Strobism is replacing studio flash equipment.

This is just my perception.  Everyone else's mileage may vary.  But the real question is what to do about it.  I think this year is going to be a wash out.  It's a great time to get personal projects done, it's strategically smart to stay in touch with as many clients and potential clients as you can.  It's important to build some new portfolios and some new self-promo and get the website ready.  But here's my "from out of left field"  "brain-stormed" (or lightning struck) idea for 2010.......

Shut your existing business down at the end of this year.  Shut down everything.  Close the doors.  Toss out all your preconceptions about how a photography business should be run.  Toss out your nostalgia and your mythology.  Everything.  Total purge.  Career colonic.

Then, on the first of the new year (or when your gut tells you we're heading back to a prosperous overall economy) emerge and totally re-invent yourself from the ground up.  New look.  New marketing.  New point of view and new ways of doing the business.  Because no matter what you do you will be participating in capitalism's biggest "hard reset" ever and it's pretty much and even bet that, except for premium brands like Coca Cola and Apple and IBM and Starbucks, everyone else will be sitting in on the same reset.  

Tired of buying endless gear? Maybe your new business model calls for rental of all lighting and grip gear.  Tired of getting tooled around for payment?  Maybe your new business model calls for nothing but credit card payment.  Tired of your old clients?  This is a time to reset.  Tired of that filing cabinet of legacy headshot files your clients will never need again?  You've gone out of that business, remember?  Toss the stuff you don't need and make room for the stuff that will make you money in the new paradigm.

I've been in Austin a long, long time.  My old clients will use me for  a long time to come.  The people who've been here as long as I have and haven't used me aren't about to start because they've already pigeon-holed me for one reason or another.  When new people move into existing jobs they bring their own people or they go out looking for those people.  By killing off our old business persona we get to be the people they bring in to replace us.

Let me repeat that:  By killing off our old business persona we get to be the people they bring in to replace us.

Being a new business gives us an excuse to get pumped up again.  To throw a big opening party. To invite people into our new process.  

I'm still thinking about all this and working the kinks out of it.  But it seems right to me on a number of intuitive levels.  Everything changes and everything evolves.  I don't want to wait around and be a miniature GM when I can be the next new thing.  I know there are many holes and pitfalls to this new idea.  And I'm not saying that I am rushing to implement but I do think it is interesting and we should discuss it.

I know it's not as sexy as talking about gear but that's the next thing I'm looking at.  Really.

Looking forward to the re-launch.  What form will it take for photographers?


Lighting instruments from another world.

I've been working on a book about lighting equipment and, after talking to many photographers, I am convinced that many are unaware there is a rich selection of alternatives out there to the usual battery-powered camera flashes, the monoblock electronic flashes and the various "pack and head" electronic flash systems.  The photograph on the right is of a Mole Richardson 10K fixture.  This thing puts out 10,000 watts of tungsten balanced light!  It's really amazing. Even more amazing are the 20K HMI lights.  That's 20,000 watts of daylight balanced light from one fixture.  

I bring this up because I think some photographers would really like to pursue a vision that's not based on using the same lights everyone else uses.  I was inspired to seek out these alternative light sources in part because of the work of Gregory Crewdson.  He does interesting fine art photos and relies almost exclusively on big movie lights for his work.  It seems to impart an entirely different feel to the work.

The same photographers who've sent me hate mail about my articles praising "radical" things like film and medium format cameras will no doubt rush to tell us that they can duplicate any lighting look with their White Lightning electronic flash gear or their $10,000 Broncolor gear but they will, as usual, miss the point.  And that point is this:  The tools and their attributes have profound influence in the creative process.  The feel of the camera, the heat and throw of a light.  The size of the fresnel in front of a light source.  It all influences our creative choices.  It influences the way a shoot flows.  And it definitely affects the outcome.

So, I found myself at an Austin shop called, GEAR.  They serve the movie industry, the television industry and a number of still photographers by renting everything from the stands and scrims to the enormous lights and the  trucks to haul them around in.  They have HMI lights (continuous daylight balanced instruments) ranging from 400 watts to 20,000 watts. They have all the most popular sizes of fresnel and open faced tungsten lights and they have stacks and stack of KinoFlo professional florescent lights.  

They have electrical generators you can put in the trunk of a Prius and also generators that come on the back of a really big truck.  And they have rolls of just about every filter gel you can possibly imagine.

I asked them for some pointers to pass along to still photographers who haven't worked on movie or television sets.  Any pitfall that might be avoided with a little forewarning.  Here is their short list:

1.  Lights over 1,000 will need their own electrical circuits.  Run a 2K tungsten on the same household circuit as the computer and you are asking for problems.

2.  Lights over 2,000 will require the services of an electrician to do something magical called a "tie-in" at the breaker box.  Alternately, you can rent a generator rated to handle the power requirements of these lights.

3.  Hot lights are hot.  You'll either need padded gloves to handle the fixtures or lots and lots of time to let them cool down before trying to move them.

4.  As above, the bigger lights put out an enormous amount of heat so don't plan on using your regular softboxes or umbrellas with them.  You'll need specially constructed softboxes or umbrellas that handle high temperatures.  Melting softboxes don't inspire confidence.....

5.  When you use a 12 foot by 12 foot silk scrim outside you need to understand that's about the same square footage as the sails that move boats across water at 20 knots or so.  You'll need more than a couple of 20 pound sandbags to anchor them!  Ask for guidance when you rent.

6.  HMI's have safety filters so that your don't tan or burn when using them.  Don't defeat the safety features!  You don't want a model suing you for the impromptu tanning booth episode.

7.  HMI's are expensive.  The bulbs start around $400.  Make sure your assistants know the score and make sure every light is secure.

Those are the big points that the rental guys deal with on an almost daily basis.  Even so you can get some really unique looks with some of these lights and the rentals on traditional tungsten lights are  reasonable.  Well worth trying out the next time you want to do something different.

I really enjoyed what I saw from the KinoFlo's.  There's something cool (literally and figuratively) about florescent lighting.  I'm pretty interested in how those differences might manifest themselves when shooting a portrait so when I saw an interesting fixture at Precision Camera I just had to get one.

Interfit makes cheap flashes and decent flashes and a bunch of other lighting stuff.  Just recently they came out with a light called the Cool Lite 9.  It's a fixture that takes nine compact florescent bulbs, comes with a large metal reflector and a heat resistant softbox attachment. All for $279. So far it's a lot of fun.  I need to be reminded from time to time how much fun it is to shoot with WYSIWYG continous lighting.

As you know if you've read much of my stuff I'm a real sucker for wide open apertures and short telephoto lenses.  They seem to converge to make magical portraits.  The Cool Lite 9 gives me enough light to keep the camera steady (1/125th or 1/250th of a second) at reasonable ISO's (200-400).  I'm working on a new series of portraits with this light.

I'm also shooting lots of examples for the book.  Should be interesting.  I keep learning about neat new stuff and relearning techniques that are mostly lost these days.  Hope the week ahead is profitable and fun.  Try some movie lighting if you get a chance.  But be sure to get the gloves........



Getting what you want with digital.

I've made no bones about my appreciation of film and film cameras but there is a certain reality that has to be interjected when we talk about the world of photography in 2009. For better or worse clients expect things to be done faster than a haircut and for little or no money.

There was even a goofy idea on the web that somehow we'd all get rich if we just gave everything away for free. But the guy who came up with that stupid idea starved to death a few 

weeks ago and his intellectual supporters have moved on to the thorny problem of how to "monetize" Twitter. (that means "make money" for all the gentle readers who haven't kept up with the frighteningly fast destruction of common language...).

The rest of us are left with the task of bringing some sort of sanity back to the financial models of our industries. Here's a novel idea:  Let's charge money for what we do.  A cheerful amendment:  Let's charge additional money for using the images more than once!  A third idea:  Let's charge more than it actually costs us to make the image.  (That would include materials, cameras and our time!!!)

That was all non-sequitar.  What I really want to talk about is how to arm wrestle with the digital media to get the images you really like.

All three of the attached images were done for an advertising campaign for the Austin Lyric Opera.  In each shot I wanted to get the kind of soft, non detailed background we used to get when we shot portraits with a long lens on a view camera. In this case our non-profit client had a very "non-profity" budget so our choice was digital or.....digital.  And here's where it gets interesting.  As soulless as I make digital photography out to be I am sometimes (wife and friends snicker...) given to hyperbole.  I must grudgingly admit that a number of the digital cameras produced in the recent past are possessed with an intangible but very visible character that makes them wonderfully different from the run of the mill.

Top of my list is the Kodak family.  My regard for the DCS 760, six megapixel camera from 2002 is unabated.  I battle for dominance with my DCS SLR/n and on the times when I win and the camera grudgingly accepts my direction I am truly delighted with the files.   I sometimes sit on the back porch with a warm cup of coffee and a lone tear comes to my eye when I ponder the irony of Kodak inventing all the good stuff but no longer able to compete in the market......

In the Nikon family, the D700 is a great camera but it lacks personality.  The D2h is a so-s0 image producer but has the personality of a border collie.  The D300 and the D100 both exude soul like a box of Motown 45's.  The Sony R1 is an axe bumbling idiot with flashes of savant genius.  And so on.  But I digress.

When I started planning this campaign for the ALO I know I wanted shallow depth and a color palette that was different than the latest eagerly precise and clinically sterile cameras.  I choose the DCS 760  and decided to shoot at ISO 80.  To get the tiny depth of field I craved I looked through the lens drawer and, after long consideration, I pulled out my unreliable sleeper, the Nikon 105 f2 DC (defocus coupling) lens.  I say unreliable because no matter how often I use it I'm never able to really predict the outcome.  Perfect for a job like this.

And, of course you know that I had to choose a continuous light source to make the wide open aperture work the way I wanted it to.  I used a light that is no longer made.  A Profoto Protungsten.  A fan cooled fixture that mimics the ergonomics of the Profoto flash heads and takes all the same light modifiers.  I used a Magnum reflector with a wide spread and coaxed the light through two layers of white scrim material clinging to a six foot by six foot frame. This was suspended above and to the right of the subject just as close as I could place it without making it a co-star in the frame.

Here's the secret of making tungsten work with an old Kodak that was famous for it's noisy blue channel:  Gel the light with a 1/2 CTB.  That's a filter that gets you half way from tungsten color balance to daylight balance.  Essentially you are trying to keep the camera from compensating from the lack of blue in 3200K light by ramping up the amplification on the blue channel and flooding the image with noise.

I used a small Desisti 300 watt spotlight in its wide flood position for the background.  The only other trick is to try to position the bright spots and the shadows that appear in the background in the proper relationship to the subject.

I love shooting this way.  One part of me always longs for stuff like Leaf medium format digital cameras and Nikon D3x's but as soon as I've got them in hand I feel like a slave.  I'm always trying to show off their capabilities instead of mine.  Mine are all about design and rapport and posing and thinking.  They want me to show off sharpness and accuracy and other things that computers do so well.  It's a hell of a fight when you have to go mano a mano with the very tools that should be serving your vision instead of trying to create it.

Random Note:  Please check out my second book.  I think it's quite good and though you may be too advanced for it at this stage in your career I'm sure that your wives and mothers would love a copy for mother's day.......Minimalist Lighting:  etc. Studio


Right Place. Right Time. Right Intention.

So.  I've written about my proclivity for shooting with medium format film and I've made a case (I think) for using the tools that inspire you most, but there's an image up next to my desk that kicks me in the shins every time I get the gear lust and start to covet yet another camera that's destined to make me the "hot" photographer of 200x.  It's the one on the right.  The image is of Rene Zellweger, circa 1992 and it's a constant reminder to me just how secondary all the equipment really is. I was trying to replicate a shot I'd done of my wife Belinda, years earlier. That shot was done on an old Canon TX film camera.  A real beater of an SLR, with shutter that capped out at 1/500th of a second and a little "stick and lollypop" metering system.  I was living in an old house at the time and I'd set up a quickie studio in the living room with a rickety old tripod and a 500 watt photoflood in a utility reflector.  The light was aimed into a 40 inch white umbrella in the "shoot thru" position and placed fairly close to Belinda.  It had to be pretty close because for some silly reason I was using ISO 50 Ilford Pan F black and white film.  The lens was wide open.  The result was wonderful.

Flash forward ten years and I'm in the studio with (at the time) unknown future movie star, Rene Zellweger, and we're trying to get that same look.  I'm using the same old Canon TX and I was using the Canon 135mm Soft Focus lens.  Same old, tattered umbrella and some variant of a 500 watt continuous flood light.  It's one of my favorite photographs.  Partly because it reminds me of the silly projects that Rene and I did together (like an art video entitled, "Coffee. Is it a gift from God or a tool or Satan....."  lots of long shots and coffee cups, and girls with leopard print scarves and little black dresses......) but mostly I like the image because it reminds me that all the gear is so secondary to the power of my intention.  If I intend to do an image I generally carry through and do what's needed to realize my ideas.  The momentum of my intention is what makes a project successful or just another piece of crap.  The equipment is so much less important.

A second, and most important point.

After my last blog post I got a wonderful personal e-mail from a photographer in Alabama who basically said,  "The lights don't matter.  The camera doesn't matter.  The lens doesn't matter. The only thing that matters (to a portrait photographer) is, how do you get that look in their eyes?  That rapport?"  She went on to say that she'd searched the web for a while and felt that some of the images I shot had the emotional quality that she was interested in.  She wanted to know how to get to that.

I've thought about it all week and I have an answer that will, no doubt, infuriate people who love to be surrounded by an entourage.  The answer is:  you must make a portrait sitting a very intimate relationship.  You must eliminate any distraction for you or the sitter.  No people in the room.  No tight ended schedule.  No fluttering make up artist.  No eager and relentless assistant.  If you want to truly connect with a sitter you must throw out all the crew and friends and the people who get you coffee and look at crap on the monitor.  It is like making love and very few people are comfortable doing that with a crowd looking on.

People will open up in front of the camera if they trust you and they don't have to entertain or make allowances for other people.  This whole mania of carting around assistants for every project, no matter how small, is one of the things that's killing good portrait work.  Send them outside to clean your car or to paint the fence.  A good portrait is a one on one sharing.  A collaboration and very little else matters.  Shooting a portrait, whether for fashion or your own art, with other people in the room means that you've abdicated your intention to do an intimate portrait and you are tacitly content just to do self serving theater about photography. At that point you've become a hack.  A workshopper.  The kind of photographer who cares more about how he looks on the video his assistants are shooting of him than how the image in his camera looks.  At this point one has abandoned the true practice of portraiture and become a hollow caricature of a photographer.  

One sitter.  One shooter.  An empty silence filled with potential.